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[A Pentland Artist.]

One afternoon Ann had telephoned me from over the hills. Her voice had sounded so small and breathless that I had initially confused it for a child’s. Yet eventually I had bowed to the reality that this was Ann and next I had registered what she was saying. Was it possible for her to come and spend the night in my own cottage?

Of course, it was quite impossible. My husband would want it so that we had the place to ourselves at the end of the day, to eat our supper and drink a bottle of wine together. And when I asked Ann to specify what was behind this exactly, her voice became hissing and embarrassed and she was unable to twist it into words for me. I bade her a firm good evening but I promised to call round the next day, to see what help I could provide.

Even after the progress that she had achieved in managing to phone me, it was difficult to rattle any further information out of her. The next day she was back to her normal evasiveness and aloofness. Undeterred, I resolved to puncture this with several sharp questions. I sensed that she only supplied me with answers in the end to avoid hearing even cruder and more personal ones.

This was the story that I had got together.

Across the hills, in her own cottage, Ann was struggling to get up the stairs. This was not due to any physical handicap, but because around the bend at the top of the stairs (and Ann’s story has made me realise how much any home is a succession of bends) there was a force that she could not bring herself to confront. A feeling of malevolence, or a kind of pocket of gleefulness that had opened up in this precise corner of the universe. The malevolence would immobilise her if she ever dared stand before its flame. It would herd everything other than its own majesty out of her mind; her name, her cottage and who she was would be mere details lost underfoot in the stampede. Blankly, the malevolence would inhabit her mind forever.

I expressed concern, of course. Otherwise I could not see what me and my husband could do. Ann was clearly toiling under an advanced paranoia and people in this condition can become uncontrollable or even dangerous very quickly.

In her cottage, the upstairs was currently out of bounds for her. She was reduced to sleeping in an armchair in her sitting room and this armchair was now all that was practically left of her home. I had the grim suspicion that Ann was now washing herself on the shore of the reservoir, instead of going up to use her cottage’s only bathroom.

Next Alec Drurie had phoned me. This, the farmer who had used to employ Ann’s husband to care for his livestock. Ann had been picked up on the outskirts of his farm in a state of distress. Alec had interrogated her with an impatience that was like a heron’s beak, until he had broken through to the guts of what had happened.  

This is what had happened. It had been Ann’s day for the groceries and after her arc had taken her through Balerno she had reached home again late in the afternoon. She had unlatched the gate to her front garden, with shopping bags veering around her ankles like spaniels, and she had been halfway up the path when, intuitively, she stopped dead. The blood in her veins was suddenly a piercing whistle in her ears.

Inside her home she could make out a figure. It appeared to be an old woman, a skeletal old woman with tousled hair scraped up high on her head, and when Ann spotted her she was seemingly drifting around the sitting room. Her eyes were beady and she was hanging on the air, as if searching for something. Next she had plucked at a canvas from those amassed against the wall and she pulled it forward and looked over it. After a moment, she had blinked, smiled and let the canvas drop back. You could not have quite described her smile as being fond.

In a series of bumps and tumbles Ann came to understand that this woman was herself. She had only ever seen herself fixed unnaturally in the looking glass or spectrally reflected in her own windows at dusk and never, of course, sidelong. The fact that the woman was wearing the same clothes that she had dressed in herself that morning did little to hasten Ann’s recognition of her. Instead, this woman somehow brought to mind a rare animal that you might come across in a secluded place, beside a waterfall, say. There was the same inkling of the miraculous and of an immense gift being freely bestowed.

But Ann saw as well that this woman was really hollow, that there was no human being of substance behind the performance in the sitting room. It was all a sheer display. And then, just as the reality of this figure was beginning to settle in Ann’s mind, a steep panic and amazement had risen over her again. At any second, this figure could lift its head and look blankly into her own eyes. And Ann knew that this would destroy her, it would cause her heart to jam fast like a ball caught in a glove.

She pulled and pulled up and reeled away with the lumbering desperation with which you flee in a nightmare. Ducking to her knees, for an instant she feared that she would black out across the grass. Next she found that she was stealing around the side of her own cottage and she realised that she had did not have the first idea of where she was going to. Inspired, she turned and fled back across her garden to the front gate, all the time conscious that her other self must be standing at the sitting-room window, watching her.

“I think she should stay at yours,” Alec prompted. “We can do nothing for her here.”

I did not say anything.

“Aye, I kint recognise her. She’s gotten thin these days. She’s still carryin’ on as one of those vegetarians?” He lowered his voice and sounded very wary as he asked me this.

“She always has been, as long as anybody’s known her.” Why can’t she stay at yours?, I thought in a fury. You have womenfolk over there. You have any number of rooms you can stuff her into.

“More’s the pity,” he returned. “A good lamb broth might bring her to her senses again. An’ there’s something to be said for readin’ your Bible an’ sayin’ your prayers. Too many of you have tried gettin’ by without that an’ look where it’s got you.”

He evidently thought it disloyalty that anybody who had been ever connected to his farm, in however remote a fashion, was failing to eat meat. It was as if a point of weakness had been allowed to develop in some barricade that we were all meant to be manning together. I also noticed that I had been lately dragged into Ann’s disaster. I was now, it seemed, the second in a pair of wicked, Bible-neglecting pantomime sisters.

But Alec was an old man and these days he was struggling. You could sometimes see him up on one of the hills. You would marvel at the idea of him ever getting to where he was bent on going. His legs were always splayed incredibly apart, with the knees pointed out to make his lower body appear to terminate in the semblance of a monstrous nutcracker. He would stamp each foot in turn to somehow edge himself tremblingly onwards.

We wrangled and thrashed out a compromise. He would volunteer a room for her tonight if I would fix up something more permanent for the morrow.  When my husband was home I unloaded the whole sorrowful story at his feet. He was a bit put out, because he had never heard a breath about this up until now. Nonetheless, he energetically brainstormed a plan of action. He had worked in medicine for several years in Edinburgh and he began making phone calls, pulling at different threads until one gave.

At last, he identified a nursing facility where Ann could be accommodated for the time being, prior to a psychiatric assessment. I phoned Alec with this news and he said that he would get one of his people to drive her over to the address the following morning.

I was pleased with my work. I told my husband that I would visit Ann later in the week, to see how she was holding up.

I did not forget about her exactly but considerably more than a week had passed before I managed to get down into Edinburgh. The room that my husband had obtained was located in a pleasant, minor garden hospital. The cottages that were all laid out for the residents in the sunshine gave the hospital the strange immaculacy of a town baked from gingerbread. This was clearly a place where the only permitted emotion was a cautious happiness or a gratitude to be alive at all. Not a place where a person could ever raise their voice. All of the pink roses would swivel on their stalks and point menacingly at such a transgressor like laser guns.

They had greeted me cheerfully enough at the reception building but when I said Ann’s name, they toppled at once into a dizzying silence. It felt vaguely like I had slaughtered them all with a single mention of Ann. The nurse in front of me looked down at her hands. Dr Crespy was on his rounds currently, her voice announced from very far away, but she would signal when he was here.

My heart leapt – had Ann died? I searched the nurse’s face (which was now mostly in profile) for any creeping of an answer, but she had nodded me towards a row of chairs. It seemed that I would just have to wait for Dr Crespy.

I was immediately reassured when I saw him. He was, above the compact and rather spindly body, decked out in tweeds and a white coat, a markedly leonine man, balancing a mass of finely-curled light-brown hair and with a noble friendliness in his face. He approached, drifting up the corridor, and now he was speaking offhandedly to me, as if he was resuming some conversation that we might have been having over a garden fence for many a year. His words sounded friendly but then with a shock I had dropped off a plateau and I realised that he was absolutely furious with me. That gracious smile was merely frozen on his jaw, like a crease in an apron. Peeping out of the sleeves of his white jacket, his hands throbbed and twitched with emotion.

“How dare you take advantage of us and our work here. Who the fucking hell do you think you are, to load this woman onto us? How dare you.”

My voice had started out wobbling crazily but I managed to squash it into a small, fluttering “I beg your pardon?”

“Well, I’ve assessed her and after a single minute it was obvious to me there is nothing wrong with her. We are not a hotel or an all-you-can-eat buffet. I have spoken to the matron who admitted her and I will speak also to your husband, who has gone far beyond all understanding of what is professionally acceptable here in Edinburgh. You’re lucky I don’t charge you for her stay here – at a top fee, mind!”

With a snort and a regal wave of his hand he was drifting on up the corridor. “Excuse me, but where is she now?” I called helplessly after him. He looked away, unhooked from all knowledge of my existence.

I got up and ran after him but on reaching him I was too frightened to speak. He was continuing at the same regal pace but his stock of friendliness-for-show was now drained and his face looked as hard as a biscuit. The nurses had seen our argument and they were already tumbling out from behind their desk in a contingent. Wonderingly, I prepared to be manhandled.

“Where is she now?” I demanded. Dr Crespy would not react. Then the nurses had got between me and him. With wild, outstretched movements, as though I was a bullock that was blundering onto some ornamental flowerbeds, they were shooing me towards the door.

Where was she now? Outside in the car park it had all blown over and I was suddenly not physically afraid anymore. Indeed my dander was up. If she was living in the street or out in a park somewhere I would make sure that Dr Crespy paid for this. At a top fee!

First, however, I would check her cottage. Maybe the stimulation here in Edinburgh had freshened her up and her soul had brightened again. Maybe she had popped over to the Jenners tearoom and then taken a bus back to the Pentlands, as she would have doubtless done in her heyday.

But you cannot be scooped up by a helicopter and deposited in the Pentlands minutes later. Even with the assistance of a bus, the walk would be arduous. As I made out over the hills, all of my fretting fell to a hum, which ran on beneath the normal, blank impressions of blocks of hills and that honey-coloured summer grass and the washing of the wind over gorse and heather and all of the imposing soullessness out here.

My husband was not home; I would have to continue on to Ann’s cottage without him. I had thought that much more could be done with his help. The land was not darkling yet but the lid would drop down on the daylight in a couple of hours.

I was now coming over the nearest hill. While I walked I scrutinised the cottage that waited motionless for me down below, in the crook in front of the reservoir. There were no lights in the windows; in fact, it came to me somehow that nobody had been around about for a long time.

I looked up at the landscape again, conscious that there were no ramblers visible on the paths. Looking across to the reservoir, I saw that there were no fishermen there either. I had that feeling that you will so characteristically get in the Pentlands, that the valley in which you are walking is a pair of cupped hands and that you are a tiny feathery insect that is scurrying obliviously over the skin. Watched from above, of course.

I had reached her garden gate. I continued to survey the great blank face of the house, waiting for any noise or movement to reach me from within.

I had no urge to yell. I knew that there was no power in my voice that could carry all the way inside. I unlatched the gate, conscious of the liquid precision of each sound, as if I was fumbling with loose change inside a cathedral, and then I was set on the garden path.

At the front door I rapped clearly. Nothing happened and I saw that there was nothing to do but wait.

The wind bustled faintly in my ear and the shadow of a cloud trundled over the hillside above me. From over on the reservoir I could make out the definite clunk of a single wave turning over. Or perhaps it had been the body of a trout, pouring up and slithering against the evening air like a paintbrush. I continued to wait.

I pressed the door and my heart danced a little. Noiselessly, it had fallen open in my hand.

Now inside, I stamped my feet, anxious to make more noise. Around the bend at the end of the hallway was an entrance to the sitting room. I saw that this door was closed.

I would have given anything to be able to shout out my arrival in a hearty voice. I knew, though, that my voice would only come weakly and it might cause attacking forces to somehow gather and swoop down on to me. I reached the door and in a distant, almost calamitously polite eruption I heard my own knuckle tapping on it. I listened and my mouth was very dry.

Finally I grunted, with a kind of mental “heave-ho!” and pushed at the door. This one also gave way without any resistance but as it did so I heard a man’s voice whisper quickly just behind it. “Watch out!”

Light cascaded in on where I was standing. Ann was ahead of me, silhouetted stiffly against the window and the evening sunshine outside. I knew at once that there was nobody else in the room.

Ann meandered languidly out of her silhouette form and then pounced and grinned fiendishly into my dazzled face. I stood astonished. I had the impression of an absolute viciousness.

I knew that I was in tremendous danger. Still, it had become impossible for me to turn away and shuffle out of that room. Ann held me in her eyes as if I was somehow hanging impaled on the spike of her gloating.

You are in tremendous danger, the words rang uselessly in my mind.

My mother has told me, as I am sure yours has told you, that there is no use in rescuing a little mouse from the jaws of a cat. The cat’s gaze will stun the mouse so powerfully that it will be spellbound forever. A rescued mouse will seek out the lost cat, as if a new religion had been injected inside it, one in which it now devoutly worships its own destruction.

You are in tremendous danger, my own mind buzzed. I willed myself and managed to cautiously unbend my foot very slightly.

Ann was continuing and I saw that her destination was an oak table. There was a packet of luncheon meat lying open on this table, a puddle of sloppy ham. “I’M THE DEVIL” Ann rasped, in a voice so thick that it could have been that of someone on their death bed. She tore the packet from the table and began to shovel the ham into her mouth. “I’M THE DEVIL!” Her jaws were chomping laden with so much soggy meat that these words were mashed into spectral shapes. She leered at me, chomping mechanically, and then very subtly my terror had been unhooked and I was entirely free. I was able to turn and run, as freely as if my body was a mindless thing of air.

Home I ran. I could not bring myself to tell my husband what I had seen in that cottage. He was anyway sour about the repercussions from Crespy, so he was in no more of a mood to carry on about Ann than I was.

But little was ever seen of Ann now. She had apparently dropped off the map and out of all known human life. One day Alec’s grandson was injured when going to fish in the reservoir, by a woman who had screamed at him and thrown rocks at his head. Yet the first rock had hit him on the brow and his eyes had been so bathed in blood that he had only known to run from the direction of the voice that was crowing over him. Alec sent a party across to the reservoir, with the boy accompanying them to show where he had been attacked. Unfortunately, the men could not agree on how anybody could have accessed the ledge from where the boy maintained the rocks had been thrown.

Nobody wants to be phoned up and told they have inherited a cottage in the Pentlands. The new owners – whoever they were – had tried renting it out to backpackers. You could collect the keys from a shop in Balerno. I cannot say for definite that any more rocks were thrown but certainly no backpacker would stay there for long.

For a time, some artist who made scented candles had lived in the cottage. I have been told that at night he would hear screaming from out in the blackness of the hills. Occasionally, he thought that the screaming was issuing from up in the sky or beyond it. He had started to play jazz music very loudly throughout the night, which cannot have done wonders for his sanity either. Soon he was gone too. It was as if that cottage was a surface so shiny that no insect could ever stick to it.

The Harristanes had bought the land rather than the cottage. They had flattened the cottage or eaten it and then their frightful modern geometry had sprung up. Maybe this had so bewildered the devil that he – she – or else it had given up the game as lost.

[Previously on Tychy: “Scare Story.”]